National Security Myth · 2 December 2013

On 27 November, 2013 the British High Court at the urging of Foreign Minister William Hague blocked the release of government held information on the murder, by radiation poisoning, of the former Russian FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.

His wife has continually sort the release of all information for an inquest, but the government has refused to do this.

On Wednesday, Justice John Golding of the High Court said: Nothing we have decided reduces the importance of open justice. However, no court can fail to take into account issues of national security, whatever the litigation may be.

Following this High Court decision I surveyed a considerable number of (mainly) UK based people who closely follow Russian events.

The possible national security reasons I got back included:
(1) cover up M16 incompetence;
(2) the crucial motive is to cover up what Litvinenko was doing for MI6;
(3) British intelligence knew Litvinenko was engaged in the polonium trade (long before he accidentally spilled and swallowed the fatal dose) and was closely monitoring him in the hope of exposing the Russians for “supplying” it (and even that the Russian knew about this and were hoping that Boris Berezovsky would find himself incriminated in some way);
(4) there are plausible threats that revealing information concerning the activities of a foreign power will result in some retaliatory action which would cause at least the same level of damage to the UK internationally;
(5) key individuals involved in the case were highly involved in any of a range of highly confidential activities on behalf of the UK that would be problematic to disclose because it might upset allies or weaken stance vis a vis adversaries;
(6) the information (that the government has) is saturated with intelligence that can only have been gleaned from surveillance techniques that Edward Snowden has not revealed.

Given that the murder occurred seven years ago, the first five possible reasons would not seem to pass an intelligent test of what is necessary for national security. In all of these cases, individuals and/or organizations and/or countries should have moved on.

What retaliatory action would Russia bother to take after seven years; even the knowledge that Putin’s phone (or those of his women) had been successfully bugged would hardly get a response after all the water that has flowed under the bridge in the last seven years. Putin is no Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

What could be in the range of highly confidential activities of behalf of the UK? Any key individuals are very unlikely to still be key!

Reason number (6) could be some-thing like the UK intercepting the communications of friendly European countries. But, with the Snowden revelations they would already suspect this.

National security is not just about protecting spies and sources and playing games in these areas. It should be about the protection of society as a whole and, except in actual war-time conditions or the significant possibility of war or imminent significant attack, allowing the light of day will almost always be the best way to counter threats.

Personally, I am doubtful that Golding, Hague or Britain’s national security experts are smart enough, or know enough about Russia, to make decisions.

Since my initial involvement in Russia in 1991, British official policies (and much media commentary) concerning Russia have almost continually suggested a lack of real understanding.

Most notably, an almost mindless and excessive support for Boris Yeltsin’s often destructive policies (which have needlessly contributed to many of the problems of present day Russia), and expansion of NATO (including the supposedly eventually inclusion of Georgia) and the support for missile defense while ignoring Russia’s historical-based sensitivities.

And then there is the issue of turning London into a haven for Russian crooks such as Boris Berezovsky. Of course, if you invite such people into your own home you should worry about security issues! But, would not it have been better to not initially invite them in? The British seem incapable of “learning”—as the recent case of Andrei Borodin (Bank of Moscow fame) demonstrates.

So, what use is spying if you cannot devise sensible policies based on freely available information?

In addition to the above issue, there is also probably a problem with the type of people attracted to prolonged national intelligence work.

There is probably no need to mention the Iraq failures, where it was clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction to be found. (As the first shots were fired I appeared on a panel discussion on Australian SBS television to discuss the economic consequences of the war. As an amateur, who had read as much public information as I could on this issue, I confidently said that it was “by now pretty clear” that there were no such weapons).

Max Hastings wrote in the Financial Times on September 16, 2011 about the code-breakers at Bletchley Park in 1939-45: I once put it to Professor Harry Hinsley, a Bletchley man who became chief official historian of wartime intelligence, that his volumes suggest that amateurs, enlisted for the duration, produced better results than the career men. Of course they did, he responded tartly. Surely you wouldn’t want to think that in peacetime the nation’s best brains wasted their time in intelligence?

Now, in the wake of the events of 11 September, 2001 there was undoubtedly an significant increase in the number of people who thought it was no longer “peacetime” but even that is to misunderstand the nature of the threat. It should have been treated as a very large scale police issue (with changed attitudes to the Muslim world) rather than a war issue or some crusade.

But, it is not only an issue of brains. Competence (or incompetence) is also related to personality. According to Norman Dixon, in his book On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, intellectual failings are often more the result of feelings than a lack of intelligence.

The sort of personality who can continually get excitement out of investigation (and perhaps voyeurism) is unlikely to be the sort of person who makes a very good analyst in terms of a whole of society approach. In other words, so-called intelligence professionals are very unlikely to be people who can apply straight line analytical analysis to an issue and easily temper it with some lateral thinking and a degree of imagination in order to cope with the ambiguity which is part of any society.

When such intelligence professionals tell politicians (such as Hague) who generally consider themselves responsible decision makers that something is necessary for national security, the minds of the latter tend to freeze. While politicians will generally have a broader view of society than the intelligence professionals, it will also be a view which is based on their experiences in their own country and certainly not of Russia or some other strange country (Hague has even tweeted that the forces opposing Assad in Syria are democrats). This latter point is even more true for judges who have specialized in their own legal system.

Hence, when the three narrowly focused intelligence professionals, not always particularly smart politicians, and impressionable judges come together in a certain mix, the result can easily be a distorted view as to what constitutes national security.

I strongly suspect that this is what has happened in the case of Litvinenko.